TAMPA — Sometimes tragedy comes like a lightning bolt from the sky.
At least it seemed that way for the families of Ryan McCall, Kenie Ade Freeman and Jessica Palmer — all local college students who died suddenly.
Their parents got a call from college administrators, who then contacted a man who would help them immensely: Bob Gomez.
"He's one of the first people we call," said Robert Ruday, dean of students at the University of Tampa. Gomez, 57, lost his mother, Dalia Gomez, six years ago in a tragic accident.
Seeing other families in similar crises, he wanted to ease their burdens.
By 2007, he founded Dalia's Reach, a nonprofit organization that pays for transportation, hotels and meals and arranges emotional and spiritual counseling for the loved ones of deceased college students in the Tampa area.
So far, Dalia's Reach has helped six families of students at the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa and Hillsborough Community College, institutions where Gomez has established relationships with deans. Some of the young people were far from home and launching promising futures, but their lives ended in suicide, a motorcycle accident, two pedestrian fatalities and two slayings.
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These moments are etched in Kevin McCall's mind: Police banging on his front door eight months ago. A queasy feeling as he walked down the hall to let them in. Something wasn't right. He had felt it at 3:02 a.m. when he woke sweating and clammy — the same moment that his son was being robbed of $4 and fatally shot while walking home.
Ryan McCall was a senior at the University of Tampa who planned to be a physical therapist and coach.
McCall didn't cry that morning, he said. There was so much to do.
"I had to think how I'm going to tell my wife her child has died," he said. Joanne was already at work. They had moved from Pennsylvania to Holiday two years before to be closer to Ryan and his brother Kevin Jr. in South Tampa.
He had to tell Ryan's brother and sister.
He had to arrange memorial services locally and in Pennsylvania.
They had to pick the clothes to dress their son.
"Looking back, it was very surreal," McCall said. "We were emotionally focused on getting Ryan back home. Normal left our lives that day."
At one point, he realized that he had arranged to transport their deceased son to Pennsylvania but forgot to get the family tickets to go there for the service.
That's when he learned that the tickets were paid for and waiting for them at the airport. UT administrators had contacted Gomez and his wife, Doria, a travel agent. McCall was told not to worry; the organization had made the arrangements.
Later, Gomez helped the McCalls set up a scholarship in Ryan's name for track and field athletes.
"I could never repay Bob's organization enough," McCall said. "Once this was over, I had to thank him."
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Dalia's Reach also covered travel costs for the family of Kenie Ade Freeman and a hotel stay for clergy members who presided over his funeral service.
Freeman, 20, a student at Hillsborough Community College, was a 6-foot-11 basketball player from Africa who hoped to play professionally. In November 2006, he collapsed and died of a heart problem minutes after a team practice at a tournament in Ohio.
Marcia Palmer's daughter was to come home from the University of South Florida the day before Thanksgiving 2008. Jessica Palmer, 18, was returning from a basketball game on campus when she was hit by a car while crossing Fletcher Avenue.
"We were devastated and confused," said Palmer, of Miramar. Though she has never talked to Gomez, she said she is thankful for the organization that paid the food and hotel costs for her family when they came to Tampa.
Kevin Banks, dean of students at USF, said having Dalia's Reach as a resource is a blessing.
"It's a service you don't ever want to have a need for," Banks said, "but it makes a tragic time less crazy."
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Gomez said the organization spends up to $5,000 per family, which includes flights for immediate family.
The commercial real estate developer initially paid for services out of his own pocket with help from friends and family who shared his passion for the mission.
In the years since, he has made arrangements with two hotel operators, which provide rooms to Dalia's Reach families. Also, Stewart Enterprises recently agreed to transport the deceased to their hometowns, which typically costs about $2,500.
Eventually, Gomez hopes to boost awareness and fundraising efforts so Dalia's Reach can one day serve all Florida university and college campuses.
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Gomez last saw his mother on a Friday afternoon six years ago. She was ironing a shirt "in her meticulous way" for the next morning's walkathon, a church fundraiser at Babe Zaharias Golf Course.
Dalia Gomez, 78, had walked daily for 25 years and strode ahead of people half her age.
"She was a healthy, vibrant woman who had a lot to live for," said Gomez, who lived 500 feet from his parents in Forest Hills.
He had been in a hurry that Friday. When he replays the scene in his mind, he regrets that he didn't hug and kiss her goodbye.
She was killed by a senior with vision problems who bypassed police barricades and ran into her as she walked in the race.
"You don't get to say goodbye," Gomez said. "It seems so senseless, and you're left with haunting memories of what happened."
Gomez had a loop of people around him to take care of the details as he mourned.
After she died, Gomez learned that his mother often took flowers after church services at Forest Hills United Methodist to people too ill to go out.
"She gave what she could," Gomez said.
Now, through her memory, the giving goes on.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or [email protected]